Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Basics of Sound Design

This is going to be a brief (I hope!) essay on the general process from being hired as a Sound Designer to Opening Night.

In previous essays, I've said that a Sound Designer can and usually should be worried about the total sound environment of the play; about how the orchestra sounds, about vocal reinforcement of the actors, and even about support services like backstage monitor, paging, and communications systems, lobby feed for late-comers, recording the show for the theater's archives, and hearing enhancement system for the hearing-impaired patrons. This essay, however, will concentrate on just the core; of sound effects and the basics of musical cues.

It always starts with the script. In the movie business, you've got the original script, and then there's the shooting script. In the comic book world, outline, then pages. In the theater there is just The Script. Everyone gets the same cuts marked, and prints it out so the page numbers are identical. You may read the play in a booklet, or off a pdf, but when you go into rehearsals you have a printed script on 8 1/2 x 11" paper and the same page numbers as everyone else.

The script is the click track, the SMPTE code, the index, of the entire production. Every event that happens over the course of the performance will relate directly back to it; "And we dim the lights on 'MCKINNLEY: And so it goes,' near the top of Page Four."

(When I'm working a musical, I often request a score as well. This is almost always a reduction of the orchestration for rehearsal piano, with lots of little notes about what the actual orchestration is at that moment, and includes all the vocal material arranged in staffs above the piano part. The location system is rehearsal numbers, followed by bar numbers. A good musical will have rehearsal numbers at every major change of singers; #13 when THE CAT begins "It's Possible," #13-A when JOJO and the FISH CHORUS join in.)

This is what the professionals do; stick the script in a large three-hole binder, put in dividers and clip in notes, minutes from meetings, contact lists, cast lists, schedules, and every other bit of paperwork from the show that will fit comfortably in a single binder. This becomes, then, your "Show Book." Stick a lobby card in the front of the binder, because if you are designing for a living you will be doing more than one show at the same time -- with one Show Book for each production.

You take that Show Book to every meeting, every rehearsal. That copy of the script is your master copy; you flag the pages for every cue, you highlight, underline, pencil -- whatever you have to do to indicate what is happening, on the page and on the WORD of dialog or MOMENT of action when it happens.

So you read the script. Several times. The first just to experience it and to get general impressions. How does it flow, it is fast, slow, funny, sad, etc. The second you start paying attention to how sound is used and how it might be used.

It really depends on the show and the script. Some scripts will indicate "bell rings," often in italics like the blocking notes. Shakespeare, of course, says practically nothing ("...dies.") Some will go to the other extreme; Oklahoma! indicates EXACTLY what animals are heard prior to "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," including the notation; "...a dog barks two times then stops, contented" ?!

But most scripts won't list all of even the bread-and-butter sounds; the doorbells and phone rings. You have to go over the script carefully, picking up where a phone is described in dialog, "Aren't you going to answer that, Phil?" or where it seems obvious there should have been a doorbell, "Come on in, Dolly! And is this your new husband?"

It's not hard-and-fast, but I break down sounds into roughly three groups; Spot Effects, Background Ambiance, and Transitional.

Within the spot effects falls a sub-group I call "Rehearsal" sounds; they are sounds the actors need to directly react to. If you attend an early rehearsal, you'll see exchanges like this; (John) "Is Rob going to be okay with Sue leaving him..." (Assistant Director) "Bang!" (John) "Christ! That was a gunshot! Rob? Rob?"

Other spot effects just "happen." They are part of the reality of the stage; someone is running a vacuum cleaner, or flushed a toilet, but no action or dialog is dependent on them. Thus, they can be introduced later in the rehearsal process.

If the spot sound is, say, a tune coming from a radio or phonograph the actors have to dance to, to sing along with, or otherwise interact with, the real thing needs to be in rehearsal no later than two weeks prior to Tech. The actors will need time to work with it, to adjust their performance to it.

There's no hard-and-fast rule on whether a sound needs to be in rehearsal, and how soon. Underscore music, probably. Ambient sound effects, probably not. When in doubt, ask the director.

So you read the script, and started to form ideas. Then you met the director and got their impressions. And you saw what the rest of the design team is doing. Are they going for realistic period piece, or highly stylized? What period exactly, and how precise or generic is the date and location? What is the energy, the mood, the brightness...all these qualities that make up the "feel" and "style" of a play.

So you come up with ways in which sound will enhance the production. And you sit down with the director. And here comes a potential show-stopper (for you, not for the show.)

Many directors don't "think" sound. They go through blocking, readings, rehearsal, and so forth, and in their minds a phone might ring now and then, but that's it for sound. Sound is added on, in their minds. It's like chocolate sprinkles on a donut.

For these directors, you will have a hard fight suggesting that there should be a little birdsong in the morning, some crickets at night. And they won't grasp at all your desire to make the phone ring have an eerily vocal quality to it to telegraph the news of Victoria's ghostly re-appearance, or the subwoofer rumble at the threshold of hearing, making the approach of the soldiers even more frightening.

Those are the directors that will get talked into "letting you try" a sound, which then through rehearsal (without regards to what it would sound like in final performance with a full house absorbing sound, and the actors projecting at full performance volume), gets run lower and lower and cut shorter and shorter until it no longer makes any sense as a cue.

Fortunately, more directors are seeing that sound can enhance the production in the same ways that creative use of lighting can. However, lighting has the advantage on us sound designers, in that directors respect it without thinking they understand it. They will give lighting designers room to achieve effects without overly questioning how it is supposed to work or whether it is "believable." They rarely give sound designers the same benefit.

Again I will repeat something from the previous essay; everyone in theater (thinks) they know two things; their own job, and sound.

Spot Effects, as I said, are basically those things that happen at a specific instant, and usually relate pretty directly to the action on stage. The prototypical spot is the telephone ring. Another is, say, the sound of a car pulling up outside. The actors don't react until the doorbell rings, so the timing is up to you. But you still place that car effect at a specific moment in the play to make it work within the rest of the action and the flow of the story.

Ambiances are sounds that are ongoing through a scene. They are there to set the reality of a place, a time, or set a mood. Birdsong, traffic, the sound of the river, the engines of the ship. Often, the best way to use ambiances is to start them louder and more "active" (more elements, more rapid changes) when the scene begins, and then take them down to a softer level. This mimics how human perception works; when there is a constant background sound you tend to tune it out. If you open with a detailed picture of the river lapping against the quay and the slap of rigging on the ships moored nearby, you can after a minute or so bring it down to just the soft rushing of the river and not compete with the dialog of the ongoing scene.

Combining this with spot effects is the best of both worlds; add a spot effect of river gulls and play that in the long pause as Sir Thomas thinks about his next words. So you've brought the river back into the minds of the audience, but you haven't distracted them from the important dialog.

Ambiances do not have to be realistic. For my design of Agamemnon, in keeping with the director's image of a post-apocalyptic world, and the producer's desire to have energy and movement over the sometimes dialog-heavy scenes, I had ambiances of some sort of brutal industrial ruin of a landscape; wind, the chatter of a Geiger counter, metallic clicks and clanks, raspy synthesizer pads, and so forth.

Transitional Effects are those that happen outside of the action; scene changes, entre-acts, and so forth. This also can include the use of pre-show material.

When I did Mr. Roberts, I had a mental picture of an onion in regards to the various sounds on that show. The outer layer was the reality of the theater and the audience. We had some lobby displays of period material, but they were museum-like; our perspective was that of the time and place the audience existed in. Within the auditorium, I was in period, but not specific to a time or place; my pre-show selection was music and vocal material presented as if we were listening to short-wave broadcasts. When the lights went up on stage, all the sounds there were within the reality of the ship; they were "Source," also known as diagetic; if we heard music, it was because "Sparks" had turned on the short-wave and hooked it to the ship's PA.

To my mind, then, what happens between scenes is always slightly "outside" the world and the moment of the play. That is why in even the most realistic play, music can still appear in the transitions between scenes.

Often, the transitional material is music, but it can be sound just as easily. In How To Succeed In Business one scene transition is a phone call from Mr. Biggley to Personnel. In Sweeney Todd, the first thing heard is a factory steam whistle.

So you've marked up your script, talked (fought?) with your director, and worked up what you think the sounds should be. Now the best planning tool is a cue sheet. Stick some letters on them, so you don't have to be going "No, the second telephone ring during scene two" but can just refer to "Cue C."

After several years of experimentation I've developed a scheme of letters in groups to organize cues; if a train whistle is heard three times during a scene, and a creek is trickling away underneath the entire time, I'll identify them as;

D Creek (AMB) pg. 23
E2 " " pg. 24
E3 " " pg. 25
F Gunshot (SPOT) pg. 30

In the final cue sheet these will have target lines, when to fade them, and so forth as well.

A different list is your master "pull" list. In that list, the train whistle only appears once; you will be simply playing it three times. So that list looks more like:

Train Crossing (construct from partials):
track noise (Vintage? 101 Trains?)
bell (play from GPO)
(train whistle)
Train Whistle (Vintage, track 15, process for distant sound)
Normal Phone (use the one from "Business")
"Crazy" Phone ("Business" phone, ring mod, maybe combine with scream?)

Take note of the "Train Crossing" cue above. In some cases, the cue will be the same as the pull. In others, the final cue as played will be a combination of other sounds. Instead of looking for the perfect "Background sounds of Civil War Battle" you look for cannon, shouts, rifles, bugles, horses, etc. and then slowly build a multi-track cue that combines them in an interesting way.

Assembling a sound from partials gives you much more control over period, specificity, distance, business. When you've assembled a cue from bits and pieces you can start it thick and thin it out after establishing it by taking out elements. And because you are constructing it like a song, you can make it any arbitrary length without having it sound like it is looping.

Some of the most fun cues are these combination sounds. Sometimes these will be what I call "Story-telling" cues. Recently I had to throw together the arrival of the General's Motorcade for a production of Kiss Me, Kate. As I constructed it mentally, the motorcade approaches from Stage Left; a car, and two motorcycles in front. One of the bikes shuts off before the car pulls in, but the other wheels around to find a better parking spot and idles for a bit before shutting down. Once the car stops, the chauffeur gets out, closes his door, then opens the door for the General. So those are the sequence those various elements happened in. The audience never saw any of it. The final cue was a single cue; a single "sound effect." But a little story was being told.

It is times like this that sound becomes another actor, truly. Up until quite recently, however, this was an actor who was not very flexible. He always read his lines exactly the same. Now technology is finally catching up to where sound can breathe with the performance; music cues can have a slightly faster tempo, or take a vamp or fermata; all sorts of things can evolve organically as the performance plays out. It takes, however, an operator with good musical ears!

So you've got the pull list. Some sounds come from libraries. After a while you'll have a few old favorites that just work so well you keep turning to them. Then there's the sounds you collected or built for a previous production that you can recycle. Then there's stuff you don't own. You can shop online these days -- Sounddogs dot com is a GREAT resource for royalty-free sound effects. And there's making or recording your own.

The technological options are always increasing. Back in the tape days you could do a lot to alter a sound to taste. These days, software is so easy and so powerful the majority of sounds you use will have been edited and processed in some fashion. More on that in a moment, but the reason to bring it up now is so many sounds may be something else that's been altered to fit.

As an example, in Seussical! an elephant-bird has to hatch from a large egg. I hard-boiled an egg, peeled it in front of a sensitive microphone, then changed the pitch to make it sound bigger and followed it with a processed bird tweet combined with a re-pitched elephant's trumpet.

You have to develop a sound designer's ear. One part of it is splitting what other people might think of as a single "sound" into the elements that make up that sound. What is "the sound of" a motorboat? There's the engine, there's the exhaust burbling away under the water, there's water slapping against the hull in the bow wave, there's some creaking from the fiberglass hull. When you split up a sound like this, you figure out how you could take sounds you have or can record yourself to assemble them into the sound you are looking for. By changing the ratio you can change the character. And by leaving out elements and focusing only on the most characteristic you make the sound simpler and easier for the audience to identify.

You "sell" sounds the same way. Rain never sounds right as a single sound. Combine a couple of different rain effects; some rain falling on foliage, some water running in a gutter, a little distant rolling thunder. A gunshot never sounds Hollywood by itself; mix in a bit of a cannon at low volume to beef it up, add a whip for a slightly snappier attack, stick some reverb on it for ambiance. And a train rarely sounds like a train...until you add a train whistle.

The most frequent recording task you will have as a sound designer is voice-overs. Whether it is the voice of Florence Ziegfeld interrupting the action during The Will Rogers Follies or the voices heard over the intercom in a key scene of Moonlight and Magnolias, or the diary entries read by Miss Frank herself in the scene transitions of The Diary of Anne Frank, you will find yourself recording voice talent.

My preference is to have them live whenever possible. There is so much an actor on a microphone can do, that pre-recording them is a shame. But in many plays, the vocal character never shows up. So it can be a great opportunity for an actor, or a friend of the theater, to come in for a single afternoon and still be part of the show. But you must involve the director, because even more than a sound effect, such a voice performance becomes another actor in the play.

And this essay is long enough for one day. Next, I'll detail the tools I am currently using, and how I use them.


  1. Your blog is saving my life in designing the sound for my local theatre. Thanks for being awesome!

  2. I'm a sound designer, really more of a recording engineer, and I'm currently teaching sound design, and wow do we agree on a lot. Very, very good blog. Thank you.